Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Final Report: ThinkSwiss Research Visit, University of St. Gallen

I submitted my formal "final report' to the ThinkSwiss Program after returning from Switzerland in December (I completed my research visit in October and November). This blog contains a collection of interesting, and diverse research reports. I hope that this one contributes to the general stock of knowledge about the program and provides another example of how a research visit might be constructed and executed. This entry provides an informal perspective on the experience, written primarily for those who plan to apply for a research grant, or have applied and are curious about the experiences of others.

The ThinkSwiss program is extremely well-run, end to end. The administration and logistics related to the application process were smoothly handled, the research grant was generous, and my contacts at swissnex Boston and the Swiss Embassy Washington were great to work with. The application and reporting processes were far from onerous - the output of both processes were a precisely-defined plan for my stay and a set of documents that I could pass on to my advisors at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Lally School of Management and Technology) and the National Science Foundation (IGERT Fellowship Program). I also appreciated the fact that ThinkSwiss sent a program officer to visit the University of St. Gallen (my sponsoring institution) to interview those that worked with me about my research stay. In sum, I would say that the way the program is run had a significant and positive impact on my research.

In October and November I based myself at the Institute for the Economy and Environment at the University of St. Gallen. They were great hosts - I was integrated into the activities of the Institute as soon as I arrived, and they had already arranged an office, desk, computing, and research support. Since the Institute is also home base for Oikos International, the office was a hub of activity every day. Dr. Rolf Wüstenhagen arranged a series of student-led presentations during my visit; near the end of my stay, we presented some of the results from our joint work to the other scholars there, and received great feedback. The research presentations were an important part of my visit, as my engagement with and feedback on the work of others was an opportunity for me to make a positive contribution to what was happening at the Institute. My day-to-day life at the Institute - reading, writing, thinking, and talking - left a strong impression on me.

Everyone I met at the Institute—and I do mean everyone—was focused, productive, organized, and genial: from top to bottom, from the experience getting a network password to arranging lodging, the group did their utmost to ensure that I was capable of being focused and productive from the start of my visit to the end. I can’t say enough about the capability and the hospitality of the entire group.

St. Gallen itself had everything I needed to settle into a routine. It's a walking city - I woke up, groggy, staggered down the hill to get espresso, started my day by engaging in the thuggish, brainless research tasks, occasionally accelerating into actual thinking, and usually writing. In the early afternoon Rolf and I would go for a trail run on one of the endless paths ringing St. Gallen, and then I would return and work until I snapped. After that, dinner, sleep, and repeat. Occasionally, I would break the routine of research and visit other institutions: for example, EAWAG in Dübendorf (Bernhard Truffer) and ETH-SusTec in Zurich (Timo Busch, Volker Hoffmann). Visiting other schools and meeting with visitors to St. Gallen kept things interesting at the time, and in retrospect those conversations created numerous insights and opportunities. One of the nice things about a research visit in Switzerland is that you are two hours by train away from any other university.

My research objectives during my stay were relatively straightforward (especially since the application process clarified for myself and the University of St. Gallen exactly what results they could expect). I was able to extend my existing research collaboration on innovation and the capital markets with Dr. Rolf Wüstenhagen. The two of us produced a proposal for the Swiss National Science foundation for research on the behavioral aspects of venture capital investment, using renewable energy technology as a context (does venture capital decision-making differ in the renewables space? how do venture capital investors choose new industry segments?). We also launched a new book project on energy entrepreneurship with the support of Edward Elgar Publishing. And we began work on two new papers, and presented a third (on venture capital involvement in the funding and commercialization of fuel cells) at two conferences.

I had some other, ancillary objectives to accomplish during this trip as well. First and foremost was to introduce my born-in-California, raised-in-California, never-left-California fiancé to life outside The Bubble. For an itinerant scholar, all roads do not end at the Pacific Coast Highway - one takes the jobs on offer. So for the two of us the trip was an experiment to see whether or not Switzerland fell into the No Way This Place Is Too Cold bucket. As it turns out (and much to my surprise) Switzerland (and especially St. Gallen) were a go. She liked the hills and cobblestone streets, remarking that the town felt remarkably like California to her (this is high praise). What sealed the deal: durum kabobs. Did you know that there is a Swiss version of Yelp that lists, and rates, every single kabab shop in town? Neither did I. We visited all of them. The local beer got another big-up. Smoking in the bars, not so much - but that's getting legislated out of existence as we speak. The farmer's markets were completely acceptable, as was the plethora of dark, seedy, intestine-ripping bread available from every local bakery. Other differences crucial to shaping her overall impression of Switzerland were the traditional ice cream break in the middle of feature length movies (initially confusing but good) and the rigorously enforced 10 AM and 2 PM break for espresso at the Institute (also good).

An unexpected outcome of my visit was an additional piece of joint research on solar energy investment and public policy regimes, which I am working on with another PhD student at the Institute. It was enjoyable to contribute to the development of the prestigious and important Oikos PhD Seminar for 2009, providing advice and introductions to Dr. Jost Hamschmidt.

Challenges relating to the stay are probably unsurprising, and one of which—the brevity of the visit—was of my own devising. Although I wish that I could have spent more time at the Institute—optimally, another two months—at this stage of my PhD dissertation a stay of that length would have been unworkable. It was a pleasure, however, to be outside of the United States during the weeks immediately preceding our elections, as this afforded a particularly interesting perspective from which to view the general goings-on inside and outside the United States.

The cost of living was, of course, a challenge; however the financial support provided by the ThinkSwiss grant made the visit possible, and in this sense I am grateful for the opportunity. Through the help of the Institute I secured a house stay with a host family, which helped immensely. I published my final budget to the Institute in December. Two things that I noted at the time were that additional ad hoc travel for meetings (to Zurich, Bern, Geneva, and Basel) turned out to be crucial, and quite expensive; and that staying with a host family changed my cost structure dramatically for the better. ThinkSwiss might consider trying to formalize a host-stay program somehow.

My final thought on the program relates to the oft-raised issue of expenses and activities, and for those considering a research stay perhaps the following might be something to consider. Conducting a research stay - traveling somewhere, staying there, and working - is roughly a fixed cost, minus the travel. Transport (walking) and eating (regional staple foods) are roughly the same everywhere in the world. I enjoyed a three week period in Switzerland where the Swiss Franc was pounding the dollar, and coffee got expensive, and then declined again. No big deal. What is a big deal is when you confuse or mix vacation related expenses (train tickets, eating out, general hi-jinks) with what it takes to conduct research (survive). If you try to take a "research vacation" in Switzerland, your research will be the worse for it and your vacation will suffer because you will fret about what you aren't getting done. My unsolicited advice: shelve the tourism for another time. There's a lot to learn and experience simply embedding yourself in your town, and simply living.

Thanks again to the ThinkSwiss organization, the Swiss Embassy in Washington, and the National Science Foundation IGERT Program for the wonderful opportunity.

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Rey said...

Great info. I'm really looking forward to my stay in St. Gallen

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